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What We Know About NeoCoV Coronavirus Found in Bats

A type of coronavirus referred to as “NeoCoV” has received attention in recent days after a preliminary study from China suggested MERS-related viruses could transfer from bats to humans one day—but experts say it’s too early to assess the risk.

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MERS or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome is a type of coronavirus that was first reported in humans in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and is thought to have originated in animals.

People who catch it report severe respiratory illness and the fatality rate is high. About three or four out of every 10 patients reported with MERS have died, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While MERS belongs to the same family of viruses that cause COVID-19, called coronaviruses, it does not appear to spread readily throughout communities, Mayo Clinic states. Only two patients in the U.S. have ever tested positive for it. Humans can spread it to one another through close contact, however.

In a study released in January, Chinese researchers stated that they had “unexpectedly” found that a close relative of MERS called NeoCoV that exists in bats can use a type of protein called an ACE2 receptor to enter bat cells and potentially use the same receptor to enter human cells if it were to mutate a certain way.

Generally, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and MERS are thought to recognize different receptors. SARS-CoV-2 uses the ACE2 receptor and MERS recognizes a different type called DPP4.

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As such, the Chinese study suggested that it “demonstrates the first case of ACE2 usage in MERS-related viruses, shedding light on a potential bio-safety threat of the human emergence of an ACE2 using ‘MERS-CoV-2’ with both high fatality and transmission rate.”

It should be noted, however, that the Chinese study is a pre-print and has not been subject to peer review, which is the rigorous scientific process used to verify studies and their findings.

In addition, a number of experts have not expressed alarm. Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University in the U.K., told newspaper The Independent that the study suggests that infection of human cells with NeoCoV would be “extremely inefficient” and added: “We need to see more data confirming human infection and associated severity before getting anxious.”

He did, however, say that the study highlights the need for vigilance regarding the spread of coronaviruses from animals to humans.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) told Russian news agency TASS that it was aware of the Chinese study but said: “Whether the virus detected in the study will pose a risk for humans will require further study.”

The Chinese study, titled “Close relatives of MERS-CoV in bats use ACE2 as their functional receptors”, was published in the pre-print journal bioRxiv on January 25.

A stock photo shows a lab worker looking down a microscope. Chinese researchers have been researching a type of coronavirus called NeoCoV.
Niphon Khiawprommas/Getty

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